Earl Pace on racism in the IT workplace

Earl Pace on racism in the IT workplace

At the end of last year tech pioneer and Black Data Processing Association (BDPA) founder Earl Pace set down for a candid interview with Don Tennant from Computerworld. Below are some excerpts from that interview:

In your experience, in what ways does racism typically manifest itself in the IT workplace? Computerworld demonstrated one with its 2008 Salary Survey statistics about the disparity in remuneration. It manifests itself in promotions. It even manifests itself in the way in which companies interact with BDPA. We have companies who are very anxious to come to BDPA’s conferences because they want to hire our technical people. But they are loathe to come to a BDPA conference to demonstrate their software or hardware, to deal with us as a high-technology organization where the people who are moving through our expo are people who can and do influence purchasing decisions. Those kinds of presentations and exhibits are very difficult, almost impossible, for us to get. We have booth after booth of companies that want to hire people.

How is the problem of racism in the IT workplace changing? Is it becoming less of a problem, or is it just manifesting itself in different ways? It is not less of a problem. It is, perhaps, more subtle or sophisticated. There are some promotions that have occurred. There are probably more African-Americans and other minorities that have been promoted to senior-level positions than existed in 1975 when BDPA was formed. But the impact of those people at higher levels is marginal with respect to bringing other African-Americans up the pipeline to replace or to supplement them.

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Are the challenges faced by African-Americans in the IT workplace different from those faced by other minorities? If so, how are they different. This is a complicated issue to describe or to put your finger on. There are myriad opportunities that people have to discriminate, and color is a significant one. Sometimes it’s exacerabted by the exposure opportunity that you have had. For instance, people from India often have a color issue. But the emphasis is reduced by a skill set or by a perception that these people have been trained and are technically sophisticated. Regardless of that, they do experience a degree of discrimination simply because of skin color.

Hispanics run the gamut of skin color. With African-Americans, because of our historical legacy in the United States, there are a lot of hurdles to overcome. Some you experience as a business owner, and some you experience in your job.

What is your response to black IT professionals who say they just want to be thought of as IT professionals, not as black IT professionals? That they are operating under a delusion.

What has to happen in order for there to no longer be a need for an association of black IT professionals? Parity. What I would like to emphasize, though, probably more than anything else, is that professional organizations are very, very necessary, particularly for African-Americans and other minorities. The necessity doubles when you get into economic circumstances like what we’re in now. A professional organization gives you an opportunity to develop skills that you’ll need in your workplace but does it in an environment that is supportive, as opposed to combative.

Glitch Game Testers

Georgia Tech and Morehouse College are partners in a research initiative aimed at using young African American men’s passion for video games to increase their interest in computer science careers.

The program — Glitch — is funded by the National Science Foundation and consists of a dozen Atlanta-area teens working as game testers for the likes of Electronic Arts, Cartoon Network, and GameTap. Georgia Tech School of Interactive Computing PhD student Betsy DiSalvo, Glitch’s lead researcher, played a crucial role in the project’s birth.

DiSalvo was compelled by statistics that indicated that despite many young black men being avid gamers, they pursued computer science careers at relatively low rates compared to whites.

“That is a very dramatic [contrast compared to] people who do use game interest as an entry point into computer science,” she said.

She sought insight into this disparity by interviewing young African American males.

“What I found,” said DiSalvo. “Was this really strong sense of sportsmanship and social play. And because of that, they weren’t cheating, modding, or hacking the games at all. They were pretty much playing the games straight out of the boxes the way they were intended to be played. They weren’t seeing games as something that could be manipulated, or something they had power over.”

DiSalvo and fellow researchers looked for a way to encourage teens to “break the games open,” despite the young men’s codes of sportsmanship and fair play. The answer was game testing. Researchers figured that the task of searching for bugs and errors would give young black gamers the incentive to consider video games in a new light.

Glitch Game Testers launched June 2008. Currently, 12 Atlanta-area high school students aged 16 and 17 are participants. They test games and entertainment applications for companies in the game industry. Testers work full time during the summer, and part time during the school year, for $8 an hour. They are paid as research subjects – not as employees of companies – though organizers are looking at ways to get students compensate by clients. In funding the project, the National Science Foundation awarded $484,175 to Georgia Tech, and $194,260 to Morehouse for a total of $678,435. Electronic Arts supplied all of the training materials for the program. Glitch is a success and has exceeded expectations, according to DiSalvo.

“Of the 12 students who started the program last summer, two of them came in with an interest in computer science as their [college] major. At the end of the summer, eight of them said they were considering computer science!”

Glitch also provides basic computer science instruction.

“We are trying to turn them from being just consumers, to being producers of technology. Not just producing with technology, not just using software, but actually producing the software itself,” Disalvo explained.

Corey Steward, a fourth-year Computer Science major at Georgia Tech, a Glitch research assistant and a black man, said he can relate to many of the boys in the program. As a child he was interested in computer science, but lived in a community that lacked the resources and guidance he needed to cultivate this interest. He said the highest level computing class offered at his high school was a keyboarding class.

Many young black people face similar obstacles when pursuing computer science.

Despite this, Steward said introducing the young men to game testing and computing  was, “pretty seamless.”

“We had no problems as far as showing them the different side of video-gaming. Everybody just took right to it and wanted to learn more. Everybody did,” Steward said. “And when it came to the computer science aspect of it, showing them the parallel between video games and computer science, all of the kids took to it as well.”

kids on pc

Because Glitch is a research program, researchers opted to protect the teens’ privacy by concealing their true names from Noire Digerati, in favor of pseudonyms. One young man whose alias is “Goblin” said being a tester enhanced his understanding of how games are produced.

“Before I just played,” he said. “It is like, you just think about it more now. Like, ‘oh, [developers] must have used this coding’.”

Another game tester, “Sportman”, said the program dramatically changed his career goals.

“I wanted to get into criminal justice but now I am starting to like programming so I think I am going to get into programming…It is just interesting. There is always something to learn, always something new you have to do. It would never get boring,” he said.

DiSalvo believes programs like Glitch can have a positive, lasting impact in the U.S. She suggested two potential models for replicating and implementing Glitch outside of the current program.

“One way is to launch Glitch as a brand and actually set this up as a larger company and open up other offices to do this,” she said. “[The other way would include] an existing game company or game testing company. You could put this in as a high school program.”

Steward thinks Glitch, “can grow way beyond a research program.”

“You can put this in communities and give kids resources they wouldn’t normally have, or [put people in place] who can teach them things they wouldn’t normally learn,” he said.

Black Digerati

This is the time to produce! We’ve been known for consuming long enough, right?

Many of my friends are aware that I am currently doing research to answer the question: Why Are Blacks Underrepresented in Careers in Computing? Many of them do not feel that there is actually a digital divide. In fact, even my wife and I recently had a conversation where she informed me that she did not believe it was an issue and she cites that most of her friends are very active on Facebook. But being active on Facebook is not the premise of my argument.

Allow me to take this moment to respond. Humans in general are very social beings. African Americans are probably more socially oriented than any other ethnic group. So, I am not surprised at all black folks are ahead of the game in being in on Facebook and using mobile devices. But how many of us are producing mobile content? How many of us have started companies to produce applications for the iPhone and Android? Where are those stats? We have always been HUGE consumers. It has been reported for years that black folks spend more money at the movies then any other group. We are also known to buy more cds/mp3s. This is all entertainment. Is anyone PRODUCING content for movies other than Tyler Perry and a few others? Do we own record companies, not labels, not studios, companies?

We are huge CONSUMERS. What I am advocating here is that we become PRODUCERS. And my research project is to find out why we do not pursue the skills to become PRODUCERS. Facebook was created by a young college student at Harvard. Where is the young black college student from an HBCU who is producing a Facebook or a Twitter? Why are our young people NOT represented in this space? Where are the black people who are innovating in this space the way we innovate in music, hip-hop, jazz, athletics, dancing, and acting? Please do not get me wrong. I know that we have a few, but we are underrepresented. And my question is why?

So, I am not impressed with the PEW study. Those numbers do not surprise me. It is the same as the movie numbers and the record sales numbers, we are just using a different medium to do the same thing, consume.